Everybody loves cute. We’re biologically programmed for it by long millennia of evolutionary psychology, and it’s a good thing, too. The signifiers of cute, you see—soft, rounded features, head oversized relative to the body, eyes oversized relative to the head—are characteristic of infants; and man, we let babies get away with murder. Dig it: If an adult stranger threw up on you or spattered your home with filth, you’d probably give him a punch in the mouth for his trouble. But a baby can drench your favorite shirt with barf, and it elicits a chuckle; a puppy can soil your Turkish rug, and draw a fond smile. They’re only little critters, after all. And they’re so adorable.
Journalist and photographer Pamela Klaffke, in her new book Hello, Cutie! Adventures in Cute Culture, talks plenty about what cute is and why we react to it as we do. She never comes right out and says that our instinctual response to 'Teh Cute' is a survival adaptation for the good of the species—but then, she doesn’t really need to; it’s there between the lines.
Read Popdose on 'Perfect Youth,' a chronicle of the origins of Canadian Punk.
Hello, Cutie! is an oddly-structured book. There are brief profiles of leading collectors and popularizers of cute culture, such as documentarian Faythe Levine (2008’s Handmade Nation) and cartoonist Meghan Murphy, creator of the webcomic Kawaii Not. But at its heart, the book is essentially a long essay about the origins and manifestations of Klaffke’s own interest in all things big-eyed and cuddly, accompanied by photographs of items from her own collection.
The visuals are striking; Klaffke backdrops her objets de kitsch against vintage fabrics, the gleefully tacky patterns—in hues not found in nature—clashing magnificently with the cheerful shades of the toys and tchotchkes themselves, then shoots analog, purposely using expired film. It’s a unified aesthetic, tying together her more-is-more philosophy and love of nostalgic technologies in the very act of making the image. The resulting photographs vibrate with warm, supersaturated colors and visible film grain, fairly leaping off the page and humping your eyeballs like an overeager puppy.
As for the the text: It is determinedly breezy, and also slightly rambling, veering across the territories of personal essay, popular history and a few half-hearted stabs at cultural criticism. Klaffke identifies Japan as the center of the “cute economy,” for instance, and that’s quite true; the market for kawaii fashions and accessories is massive there, and many Japanese trends have crossed over into the Western world. But though Klaffke lists many examples of the kawaii aesthetic, she never really explores the cultural context that spawned it—the convergence of national trauma, technological future shock, and the intersection of industrialization (and the attendant, unprecedented prosperity) with a traditionally stratified social structure—and that has powered the Japanese culture industry’s drift to the extreme edges, with the aggressively innocuous likes of Hello Kitty at one pole and new expressions of body horror and sadism at the other. It’s a missed opportunity.
Klaffke feels compelled to defend her cutopian community from criticism, and here she overreaches. Ostensibly in the interest of equal time, she cites psychoanalyst Werner Muensterberger’s seminal 1994 text Collecting, An Unruly Passion, which explores the roots of the collecting impulse. But she presents his findings in the harshest possible terms: “Muensterberger holds a very dim—even dark—view of collectors. They are damaged souls—all of them. They’ve suffered childhood trauma and seek solace in objects... If he’s to be believed, collecting is a form of anxiety relief, a way to ward off depression and deal with abandonment issues.” Muensterberger’s findings are more nuanced than that, and less condemnatory in tone; the man himself amassed a world-class collection of African art, after all, and surely knew whereof he spoke. But Klaffke tries to turn him into a straw man, raising his concerns only to dismiss them. It’s intellectually dishonest.
It is easy to write off the collector mentality, of course, as being less about the object of regard and more about the act of regarding—the thrill of the hunt, the sense of completion when that last piece slips into place. What collectors get off on is collecting.
This is obvious. But Hello, Cutie! is more interested in celebrating the community of cute-collectors. As Klaffke tells the story, collecting becomes a convenient locus for creative and prosocial activities. Doll collectors, for example, will sew outfits for their favorites; others, searching for ways to best show off their prizes, will learn photography, Web design, crafting, even cabinetry. Swap meets, conventions and online forums provide a community of social peers, as well as bargains on hard-to-find pieces.
Even for me, who has never been bitten by the collecting bug, those arguments make sense. The human factor of connecting with a peer group with shared interests is a benefit that speaks for itself. It’s too bad that Klaffke won’t let it stand on its own merit, and disregards anything that might complicate her argument.
Hello, Cutie! Could have been the book that made the “cute economy” of collecting, crafts and thrifting accessible to outsiders. Instead, it ends up preaching to the choir. But hey, it comes with stickers, so there’s that.
A velvet jacket and a hat with pom-poms, a Critic-at-Large job at Popdose dot com, the fairground’s painted swings—these foolish things remind Jack Feerick of you.